The nature of math vs the nature of school math

By | April 22, 2012

The mathematics experienced by students is so much different from the real nature
of math. What a tragedy!

What is the nature of mathematics?
  1. Mathematics is human. It is part of and fits into human culture. It is NOT an abstract, timeless, tensely, objective reality…
  2. Mathematical knowledge is fallible. As in science, mathematics can advance by making mistakes and then correcting them…
  3. There are different versions of proof or rigor. Standards of rigor can vary depending on time, place, and other things. Think of the computer-assisted proof of four color theorem in 1977…
  4. Empirical evidence, numerical experimentation and probabilistic proof all can help us decide what to believe in mathematics…
  5. Mathematical objects are a special variety of a social-cultural-historical object …They are shared ideas like Moby Dick in literature and the Immaculate Conception in religion.

The above description of the nature of mathematics is by Reuben Hersh,  from his article “Fresh Breezes in the Philosophy of Mathematics published in American Mathematical Monthly Aug-Sept, 1995 issue. He is also the author of the now classic What Is Mathematics, Really?.

What is the ‘nature’ of school mathematics?

The following is a 2002 critic of the US k-12 mathematics by Paul Lockhart in A Mathematician’s Lament.  It’s also true in my part of the globe.

The Standard of K-12 mathematics according to Lockhart:

LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you. Emphasis is placed on sitting still, filling out worksheets, and following directions. Children are expected to master a complex set of algorithms for manipulating Hindi symbols, unrelated to any real desire or curiosity on their part, and regarded only a few centuries ago as too difficult for the average adult. Multiplication tables are stressed, as are parents, teachers, and the kids themselves.

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they want here? Do they want me to divide?”) Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison.

ALGEBRA I. So as not to waste valuable time thinking about numbers and their patterns, this course instead focuses on symbols and rules for their manipulation…. The insistence that all numbers and expressions be put into various standard forms will provide additional confusion as to the meaning of identity and equality. Students must also memorize the quadratic formula for some reason.

GEOMETRY. Isolated from the rest of the curriculum, this course will raise the hopes of students who wish to engage in meaningful mathematical activity, and then dash them. Clumsy and distracting notation will be introduced, and no pains will be spared to make the simple seem complicated. This goal of this course is to eradicate any last remaining vestiges of natural mathematical intuition, in preparation for Algebra II.

ALGEBRA II. The subject of this course is the unmotivated and inappropriate use of coordinate geometry. Conic sections are introduced in a coordinate framework so as to avoid the aesthetic simplicity of cones and their sections. Students will learn to rewrite quadratic forms in a variety of standard formats for no reason whatsoever. Exponential and logarithmic functions are also introduced in Algebra II, despite not being algebraic objects, simply because they have to be stuck in somewhere, apparently.

TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory definitional runarounds. Truly interesting and beautiful phenomena, such as the way the sides of a triangle depend on its angles, will be given the same emphasis as irrelevant abbreviations and obsolete notational conventions, in order to prevent students from forming any clear idea as to what the subject is about. Students will learn such mnemonic devices as “SohCahToa”…

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5 thoughts on “The nature of math vs the nature of school math

  1. John Jackson

    In my years around the educational system, I have seen that so many kids don’t understand the pattern of number and the graduation of mathematical skills. So many kids are dependent upon resources outside of critical thinking and reasoning. Math is not hard when you begin to think and extract possibilities. American institutions have gotten away from the enforcement and reinforcement of the valuable critical thinking skills needed to progress as a student. Math is an exact science meaning that it cannot be simply stretched like metaphors in grammar. Its not simply a system of memorizing the patterns. We have to get back to instruction in math by conveying patterns and the purpose that mathematical patterns serve.

  2. Steven Greenstein

    That said, I would argue that schools are weak to identify real (authentic) mathematical talent. And if such talent is not identified early, the talented young mathematicians learn that they are, in fact, not talented at all. And the “good” students — those who are good at memorization — go on and somehow gain access to the really good stuff: authentic mathematics and mathematical activity in grad school. I think what this means is that young kids need opportunities to engage in authentic mathematical experiences.

  3. Jeff Gaynor

    Already, by 6th grade, my students are dumbfounded when I say the purpose of math is to see that the world makes sense; that what you do in math is (and must) make sense. And I tell them that “… because my teacher said so” – especially if that teacher is me – is NOT a valid mathematical reason for doing anything. But they are hard pressed to accept this.


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